The Past is another story about a family in crisis from Iranian Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi, who has become something of an expert on the topic over the course of his career, especially since he accepted the foreign language Oscar for A Separation in 2012. This time, a separated couple reunites to finalise their divorce, in the misguided belief that time heals old wounds. It doesn't, Farhadi implies; it just scabs them and causes long-lasting scars.
Technology is taking cinema away from art
I spoke to Farhadi at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where The Past premiered in competition for the coveted Palme d'Or, and for which Berenice Bejo went on to receive the best actress prize. In a wide-ranging conversation, the funny but softly-spoken classic film buff discussed his influences and responsibilities, and his fondness for making films about relationship breakdowns – with his wife.
You seem to find great inspiration from families in crisis.
When my stories come to me it is an unconscious process – I'm not aware of what I am actually writing. It's only when I step back that I realise that again, I've chosen the family as the focus.
But I am very satisfied with this common field that I have chosen for my latest films. Because I feel that family gives the appearance of a simple sample of a large society and it allows you, through the relationships in a family, to depict issues that are much wider and much more complex.
Originally it was triggered by a story that a friend of mine told me. He told me that he'd been separated from his wife for years and he had to go back to the country where he'd been married with her to handle the proceedings of the divorce. It was that simple; there was no conflict in the story he was telling us – it was just something quite peaceful that was happening to him. I thought it was a very interesting situation and I started thinking and imagining their situation; what is it like to go back to a house where you've been married with a woman, to have an opportunity to look back to the past and explore what [you] had been through together.
Could you have done this story in Iran?
I could have done it in Iran – the basis would have been the same but there would have been differences in details – and details matter in the film.
Lifestyles are different so I guess the surface of the film would have been different. But then the essence of the film, which is about human feelings, would have been the same. They are the same all over the world, wherever you go. Love, hatred: they have the same taste to everyone.
It is a very familiar human story – but it's also deeply political.
I don't see any separation or a break between a human or a political film, or sociological film. I think all aspects are in the film and then you choose your approach or the angle from which to view it. I am sure that many spectators consider this film as my most political one. Having the courage of looking back and examining your past behaviour and thinking about your past mistakes is something that many countries should be undergoing, and this is a highly political issue. It's the politicians that have the tendency to erase the past or not go back to the past.
It's very interesting to see the family drama framed as a 'whodunnit'.
Drama is really important to me and I can't consider making a film in which the dramatic aspect wouldn't be present. At the same time, I do wish to keep this realistic and commentary-like spirit of my films. I think these two genres have been separate in films. Either the films are really dramatic and they really try and capture the attention of the audience or they're more realistic and more documentary like and less of a fiction in which the narrative is less important. I've always tried to make a bridge between the two aspects, and to have both in my films.
There is an enigma in my films it's true but then I don't have one figure – one 'inspector' who goes to try and find who it is whodunnit. You are all the spectators, so you do the investigation, and in that case there's not one truth. Maybe the truth you reach is different to your neighbour's.
Having truthful characters like children brings a new dimension to the film. [And] because my films very often deal with human conflict in relationships and there is some harshness – the presence of children gives a balance of something more emotional and softer.
Given your focus on the family dynamic – do you have a big family yourself?
I met my wife (fellow director Parisa Bakhtavar) when we were students – we were both studying drama. We have two daughters (the eldest, Sarina, is a teen actress who appeared in A Separation). I am happier in my personal life than in my professional life!
How do you manage, having two directors in a marriage?
She is the one who manages and directs and I'm just taking advantage of it. There are two directors in my films – only one is credited but she is the one who is following it every step of it with me, and she is a very harsh critic.
What was the reaction in Tehran to your winning the Oscar?
The popular reaction was such a phenomenon that I can't find words to describe it. It is above any kind of expectations of or understanding. It is incredible. That is my biggest capital in life, I think – the reaction people have in Iran and it is something very precious. People and audiences acknowledged it – they recognised themselves in it. It was more than reaction to the film; they felt it represented their life.
Then Iranian authorities are not homogenous. You have all kinds of people. There are some very radical and they didn't appreciate it, of course. Whenever something happy or positive happens to an Iranian abroad there are those who always suspect that it is a plot. They always suspect it, so they suspected it then too. The people who are more open-minded keep quiet so as not to create obstacles for me. When the popular reaction is so overwhelming, the reaction of authorities can be neglected.
Communication is a consistent theme in your films – and you show how easily misinterpretation can cause harm. I wonder you how you approach the press – especially when you face questions like that last one, on how you are viewed at home? What you say leaves you vulnerable to misinterpretation and its consequences…
I suffer! It is the worst phase of my work. I feel unsatisfied with all the answers I give because it feels they are not complete. There are some things that cannot be expressed through words. If I could say it with words, I wouldn't make films. And there is a kind of phenomenon that happens to people too – the more you repeat the same answer gradually you feel disconnected in some way, you feel it doesn't come from your heart. It gives you an unpleasant 'dual' feeling.
All my films are about uncertainty and journalists want me to be very assertive. This is a contradiction that I cannot bear! Very often once it is printed and I read the interview, I don't recognise myself. I don't feel it is what I said. [laughs]
It is my problem.
What films do you watch?
I see a lot of films. I see what is released, what everybody talks about. I am curious about them. But my taste, my cinematic taste drives me more to older films. I feel that 'cinema', in a way, is behind us – it is harder to relate to present films. I feel a kind of nostalgia for the older cinema that I cannot disconnect from; Kurosawa's films for me are real cinema. I can go on watching them, along with Hitchcock, de Sica, Uzo, Bergman. Kieslowski, Fellini… They are cinema for me.
Why is cinema behind us, do you think?
Because of technology. Technology is taking cinema away from art. It has become so simple that we have stopped thinking. Cinema should be more difficult to drive people to think. When you write with a pen, you are very careful with what you write – you are very careful because it will last forever. When you are typing, you are much less careful because you know you can delete and start again. People's psychology can be read in their handwriting. Handwriting is something personal and creative. It is a personal production. Your handwriting is unique whereas your typing is like everyone else's.
The film itself is the director's vision when you assemble it e.g. your own 'handwriting'. How does the technology change that, for you?
Technology doesn't always just affect the directors; it affects the viewers. They change habits. They are so much more used to the speed and the rhythm of TV and clips that they don't like slow films anymore – they just want something to happen on the screen.
I'm not against technology – cinema itself is a new technology. But it shouldn't be excessive.
….so no 3D film for you anytime soon then.
No. [Pause] Except if I work with a choreographer, like Wim Wenders did.
Sunday 3 November, 7:30PM on SBS World Movies (streaming at SBS On Demand after broadcast)
Language: French, Farsi
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim
What's it about?
An Iranian man deserts his French wife and children to return to his homeland. Meanwhile, his wife Marie (Bejo, winner of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival prize for Best Actress) starts up a new relationship, a reality her husband confronts upon his wife's request for a divorce, unveiling a secret from their past. From acclaimed writer-director Asghar Farhadi, whose films A Separation and The Salesman have won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 and 2017 Academy Awards.